Congress declines to bail out a capital on the brink of insolvency

CARL MOLLINS March 6 1995


Congress declines to bail out a capital on the brink of insolvency

CARL MOLLINS March 6 1995


Congress declines to bail out a capital on the brink of insolvency




When Washington's Mayor Marion Barry climbed Capitol Hill seeking money from Congress last week, it was largely business as usual in his cash-strapped domain below. Residential garbage got

picked up 24 hours behind schedule. Pupils carried home letters asking parents to help repair classroom hazards before fire inspectors shut at least 50 of the 164 public schools. Civic officials promised to pay an overdue $25 million to the transit board (they did the next day) to avoid stopping all bus service. In a city with a higher rate of breast cancer than any state, First Lady Hillary Clinton learned at a hospital forum that more than three in five Washington women took no early-warning mammogram tests last year “because they can’t afford it.” The Washington Posts weekly

Crime Watch, itemizing “most reports” from a police force reduced by budget cuts, listed 130 robberies (mostly gunpoint), 146 break-in thefts and four homicides, including 18-year-

old Tony Williams, killed on the street by gunfire, and 88-year-old Pearle Payton, found dying in her home of a head wound.

The suicidal city, its people steadily moving away from its crime, want and disrepair, is now financially as well as socially near bankruptcy. The mayor went to Capitol Hill to cajole a panel of two House of Representatives subcommittees that oversee funding for the federal District of Columbia, which encloses Washington. In a dark blue suit instead of the African-style apparel he often sports downtown, the notoriously late or no-show mayor for a change arrived early, with thumbs-up swagger. In front of Congress and its TV cameras, he took up a practised routine. Since his born-again return to the mayor’s chair on Jan. 2, resuming a position he held for 11 years until his six-month imprisonment on a dope

conviction in 1990, he has blamed trouble on others—mainly, lately, on the interregnum mayoralty of Sharon Pratt Kelly. “If we don’t get some relief,” he said, “we are going to be presiding over the demise of the District.”

The city’s money troubles, Barry told a skeptical congressional panel, opens “a doorway of opportunity” for Congress to right old penny-pinching wrongs against the national capital. For his part, “I have carried a calling to serve the last, the lost and the least.” If there is a fault in that, it is that “our compassion in times of prosperity has turned into a doubleedged sword in times of hardship.”

But the mayor was to leave the marble halls of Congress empty-handed. His six-hour hearing opened with a congressional accountant’s assessment that “the District could be considered insolvent since it doesn’t have enough

cash to pay all of its bills, and future sources of funds are uncertain.” It effectively ended with a declaration that the austerity-minded Congress will certainly not provide emergency funds. Panel

co-chairman James Walsh, a Republican from Syracuse, N.Y., bluntly told the mayor: “I will not bring an appropriations bill to this Congress—I can’t do it, it won’t pass—to give the District more money this year.”

Instead, the panel sent Barry away with instructions to slash spending, repair sloppy bookkeeping and shake up the city bureaucracy. Barry also faced the prospect that a Congress-appointed oversight board will drastically undermine the mayor’s power, erode the limited self-government granted by Congress 20 years ago and shelve the district’s now-flimsy ambitions for full statehood. Barry had portrayed the financial bind as a case of underfunding due to federal restraints rather than municipal overspending and mismanagement. But co-chairman Thomas Davis, a rookie Republican member from the dormi-

tory suburbs in neighboring Virginia, sharply disagreed. “The District of Columbia faces a spending problem of monumental proportions,” he said, “and a management failure to enforce controls or implement reductions.” Even Washington-born Julian Dixon found fault with city hall. Dixon, a California Democrat, became a Barry ally in the 1980s, when he chaired the D.C. appropriations subcommittee that New Yorker Walsh heads now. (Barry, 59 on March 6, and Dixon, 60, both AfricanAmericans, became respectively mayor and congressman in January, 1979.) “There is clearly a malaise within middle management of this district,” said Dixon.

But the burden of the panel’s response to three hours of Barry testimony implicitly reflected mistrust of him. In Congress and elsewhere, his reputation is of personal and political corruption. His critics openly attribute at least some of Washington’s budget crisis to Barry’s bloating of the municipal bureaucracy by patronage. And nobody seemed to be counting: even now, head counts of the city’s employees range from 32,500 to more than 40,000. “Information on the number of District personnel is difficult to verify,” according to the congressional accountant’s report. Dixon complained that city officials were “loose with the facts.” Accusations against the Barry regime in the 1980s include blame for a crime wave that ranks Washington among much bigger and brutal cities for murder and other violence.

Based on crimes per 100,000 population in the latest federal statistics, Washington’s rate is eight times the national average for murders, five times greater for robberies and more than triple the U.S. average for assault. The charge against Barry is that, because of personal antipathy to the police, he weakened and corrupted a once-efficient city force. He had been arrested half a dozen times during civil rights disturbances in the 1960s—a record as a pugnacious crusader against racism that endears him still to many among the twothirds of Washington’s citizens who are black. Within two years of taking office as mayor, Barry reduced the force by one-quarter and diminished its share of the city budget.

In 1982, the head of the police intelligence unit reported to legal authorities that Barry had been using cocaine in sleazy nightclubs, but no charges ever ensued and Barry had the officer demoted to the night desk. It was the FBI, not the diminished city police, who set up Barry’s arrest for smoking cocaine on Jan. 18, 1990—videotaped in a hotel room where he was lured by a former lover at the FBI’s behest. That entrapment fosters the opinion among the black majority in the city’s electorate that Barry was another black victim of the white establishment.

For journalists Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood, authors of the 1994 book Dream City, “the dispirited and desperate state of the city’s police department in a time of turmoil was per-

haps Barry’s most damning legacy.” That, they write, sapped the city’s sense of security and contributed to its decline. At its peak 30 years ago, the city’s population was about 800,000. It is now about 575,000—with a consequent shrinking of the city’s taxation base and revenue. The flight to Maryland suburbs—chiefly by middle-class blacks— became a rush to security, and better schools, during Barry’s first terms in the 1980s. The refugees fled conditions that, by the latest U.S. social statistics, include a Washington

birthrate higher than the national average, but infant mortality more than double the U.S. average at 21 per 1,000 births. The local prison population, unemployment rate and proportion of residents without health insurance—a heavy drain on Washington’s budget for Medicaid—are all higher than average.

Barry, promising cures and facing down his past, won election as a city councillor after his prison term. Last September, declaring himself born again, free of drugs and with a new bride—Cora, his fourth—he won the Democrat nomination for mayor, and effectively the mayor’s chair in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 9:1. In a victory speech, he declared: “To those white people who have got whatever hangups they have, get over them.”

He is now among city officials under a new investigation. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is examining the circumstances of a $350-million bond issue that Barry and then-Mayor Kelly arranged on Wall Street in December. At issue is whether

investors got accurate data about the city’s finances. Since the start of the municipal financial year last October, city hall’s calculation of the deficit has ballooned to about $1 billion over a Congress-ordered budget of $4.55 billion.

On a national scale, the deficit is relatively puny—less than half the $2.4-billion investment loss that sent California’s Orange County into bankruptcy in December. But it looms large in local terms. And, in a wider context, it resonates— like Washington crime and other social ills—as a symbol of national decay because it afflicts America’s capital city. Some analysts attributed a dip in the dollar’s value overseas on the day of Barry’s congressional hearing to Washington’s fiscal plight. If theft and violence were the ultimate expressions of free enterprise and personal liberty—the twin pillars of U.S. democracy—then Washington would indeed be a fitting capital for the country.

Near the centre of the city, in a Pennsylvania Avenue plaza two blocks from the White House, skate-boarders and rollerbladers often cavort across inlaid brass lettering on the granite surface. The

writing is quotations about the capital from the famous and the forgotten. Of Washington, says a quote from Frederick Douglass, the 19thcentury black leader and anti-slavery crusader: “It is our national center. It belongs to us, and whether it is mean or magic, whether arrayed in glory or covered with shame, we cannot but share its character and its destiny.” A Douglass today—perhaps a civil rights hero like Marion Barry—might wonder how, so long after the abolition of slavery in 1863, life in the national capital has become so often mean. □